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Dwight Thomas on Building Community Networks - Episode 7 of the Building for Digital Equity Podcast
Sean Gonsalves speaks with Dwight Thomas, who build the first citywide municipal fiber network in Texas in Mont Belvieu. They talk about Mont Belvieu as well as the importance of engaging the community and how to make sure people can use the network once it is built. Dwight also discusses his passion for discipleship and sharing his knowledge.
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Sean Gonsalves (00:06):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzales, talking to people at the events we are attending, to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now, let's see who we have today.
Sean Gonsalves (01:08):
I'm Sean Gonsalves, senior reporter and editor with ILSR Community Broadband Networks team. And I am here in San Antonio at Net Inclusion 2023 with Dwight Thomas.
Dwight Thomas (01:22):
Sean Gonsalves (01:23):
Very interesting gentleman who has got an interesting background, and I wanted to snag him over here in the corner to talk a little bit about the work that you're doing around digital equity in general. and so let's start with introducing yourself. You're Dwight Thomas, tell us a little bit about your, your background.
Dwight Thomas (01:44):
Sure. sure, Sean. My name's Dwight Thomas. I'm with Cobb Fendley & Associates, and my title is a fancy one, but it's a broadband infrastructure consultant. And essentially, and guess, we'll getting more to that as we talk there, our conversation. But essentially what I do is I architect design networks for anyone who's looking to building them,
Sean Gonsalves (02:07):
Which you actually did in right here in the state of Texas. I understand the first municipal broadband network in the state of Texas was your baby.
Dwight Thomas (02:16):
Yes. Sean <laugh>, the city of Mont Belvieu. We did, we built the first municipally owned and operated fire optic network in the state of Texas. that's everything from soup to nuts, from conception down to test and turn up and operation. So everything in between.
Sean Gonsalves (02:33):
And what, what, what, what year, what year did you start the planning and what year did you begin to build?
Dwight Thomas (02:39):
See, this probably started, I think this has been almost six years ago.
Sean Gonsalves (02:44):
Dwight Thomas (02:44):
It's a, that kind of, when it was, when the, when we kind of conceived it right. And we knew that this is what we wanted to do, but five years ago I started construction. So the network is to this day, is about five years old.
Sean Gonsalves (02:57):
And, and, and tell us a little bit, what was the impetus for, for, for building that network?
Dwight Thomas (03:01):
Well, I guess quite simply, it's just that where the city, the city of Mont Belvieu sits, which is about 30 miles east of Houston it's kind of considered to be at the edge of most providers networks. So at the time, no provider wanted to come in. No provider wanted to upgrade their current infrastructure. And so even the city, we went out to our local provider to try to partner with them at the, at that particular time. and the response was was a no, of course. so like in most true Texas fashion, we said, we'll do it ourselves, <laugh>. and, and that's, that's what we did.
Sean Gonsalves (03:36):
And, and, and, and gimme a sense of the community. How many, how many folks live there and, and, and how, how, how many folks does the network serve today?
Dwight Thomas (03:45):
So as today, I think network, we're getting close to about 3000 subscribers. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> as a whole the city I guess we have about a 10,000 population. But, you know, we'll say probably about half of that would be considered rooftops.
Sean Gonsalves (04:02):
Gotcha, gotcha. And so, and, but now you, you, you were there for you know, several years, but you've gone on to do some other things and that, and, and that's what I heard you earlier today talking about the consulting work that you've been doing with the city of Pharr talk. Tell us, tell us about that.
Dwight Thomas (04:18):
Oh, yes. That was a unique thing that started back when I was operating a network for City of Mont Belvieu, Pharr came down to, to kind of look at the work that I've done there, wanted to talk about it. How did you know mentorship on how do they go about doing this? And that materialized into actually doing the work for them. So I did that on behalf of, of Cobb Fendley & Associates, which is where I work now. And so that was a, a process, the same thing from inception all the way down to implementation and operation.
Sean Gonsalves (04:52):
Now, in building these networks, whether it's in Mont Belvieu, whether it's in Pharr, or, or some other communities around Texas, tell us a little bit about some of the legal barriers that, that, that, that, that you run up against in, in, in municipalities, cities, towns, trying to build their own infrastructure.
Dwight Thomas (05:10):
Sure. And the thing is, I, I think the biggest terminology or the, or the biggest barrier to it is understanding what you can and can't do. if you look at some of the old, the old legal stuff, it talks about you know, cities not being able to get into, into the providing space. And that's typically with switched access. So phone service, you know, some of the video services. Broadband is not a switched access service.So you can do that, you know, and, and of course if you go back and look at the things that we did in Mont Belvieu about challenging case law to be able to do that as well. So, so it's, it started there, started with Mont Belvieu, and then since, you know, you see it across Texas now, but that's one of the biggest things is, is demystifying what a city or municipality can and can't do. And in fact, you can build it and you can part it
Sean Gonsalves (06:01):
And, and listening to you earlier today, that actually was one of the things that struck me is that you, you, you, you were talking about, and I'm paraphrasing, but you were talking about how with some folks, there's a mentality of this default of all they, they, they go first or they think about all of the things that they can't do. And then you talked about how there's, there's a lot that you can do. Can, can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Dwight Thomas (06:24):
Sure. And, and I'll, I'll use Mount Belvieu for this one, because I think it's just a great case study to answer that. so immediately after we decided that we're going to be able, the network we're faced with, of course you can, you can kind of call it some opposition. I mean, I've had, at the time, I've had providers come into my office there and saying, Hey, this will never get off the ground. and so, you know, a person like me, I'm just a pretty dogged person. So my thing is that I'm, we're gonna make this happen. And but I knew though that I could not do this off of knowledge alone. I needed the support of the community to be able to do this. So the first thing I had to do was establish that this is built for us by us, right?
That this is a community focused thing. I want you to be all into it because this is, for us, this is, we're going to do great things with this. So kind of getting that buy-in, and sometimes that meant going out to see, to have coffee, to talk to people to, to, to, to meet people where they meet, to have those conversations. Let them know, Hey, I'll be down your street next week. You, are you, will you be ready for me? You know, so those kind of conversations get that buzz going. And then at the same time, I cannot you know, talk about this without talking about the support that I received from our local government. See the leadership that was behind me and ensuring that I had enough that I needed to be able to get this done.
Sean Gonsalves (07:43):
And then, and then, and then earlier also, when I was chatting with you, you said something really interesting. You were talking about your work now and the importance of mentorship, and, and, and you also used another word, discipleship. Now, I grew up in the church, and I know what that means in that context. And I know you're not trying to, you know you know, build some kind of cult here. But, but, but talk a little bit about mentorship and, and what, and what that's about as it relates to digital equity and, and digital inclusion work.
Dwight Thomas (08:13):
Sure. Sure. Sean, I think the best way for me to talk about this is the first talk about my passion. My passion is to connect the unconnected and the underserved, you know, specifically in Texas, but all but, but everywhere. And I know for a fact that I can't do that alone. That the knowledge I possess is in my head. I do my best to share it, but in order to, to really tackle the problem, I've gotta create more disciples. And that's the thought of, of each one teach one kind of a thing, right? And so, a big part of my career now, in, in addition to my consulting, is also mentoring. and that's being able to help anybody, anybody who has an interest in this, or just wanting to become an infrastructure architect, right? And do these in their community. How do you go about doing this? What are the things that I need to know? Where do I start? So I think I'm just, I'm just as passionate about building those networks as I am about showing other people how to do that too. Mm.
Sean Gonsalves (09:08):
Like human networks. yes. You know? And so now when you talk about mentorship, are you talking primarily about young people, or, or, you know, is it
Dwight Thomas (09:16):
No, no age limit? No age limit. No age limit at all. I mean, it would be great to start with the young coming up mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but at the same time, I wanna meet whoever wants to do it. Mm-hmm. You know, this is a problem that's too big for, for, for any, for us to ignore any longer, right?
Sean Gonsalves (09:31):
Dwight Thomas (09:32):
<affirmative>, we know that we have issues and we have deficiencies where people are not connected, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so the only way I know how to do this is to, is to create more disciples, so to speak, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And and so that's just a big passion of mine. I mean, I do a lot of mentorship now mm-hmm. <affirmative> do a lot of coaching even to the extent I'm doing some pro bono stuff,
Sean Gonsalves (09:52):
Really. Now, now, now, is this around like say like digital literacy you know, kind of giving folks a sense of the lay of the land and how, how would you describe that?
Dwight Thomas (10:01):
I would say that and everything. This could even be like Dwight, I'm getting ready to to build this network. I've already got the funding. I mean, we've already, you know, we've got, we're getting ready to create the rfq. What do I need to do?
Sean Gonsalves (10:14):
Dwight Thomas (10:15):
Who, who do I, what's the best crews? You know what's the best product,
Sean Gonsalves (10:19):
Dwight Thomas (10:20):
How do I implement this particular thing? Or how do I hire, what do I look for in a hiring a person Okay. To help support this? So I would say it's, it's everything.
Sean Gonsalves (10:28):
Right? Right, right.
Dwight Thomas (10:29):
Sean Gonsalves (10:30):
Aspects of it Now. I mean, it seems to me that, you know not only because of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and all the funds that are coming down the pipeline with that, and then also the American Rescue Plan funds, but this is a exciting time to be in this space. as you know, I I, I didn't invent the term, but the broadband unification of America, I feel like, is underway right now. And so there's a lot there, there, there's a, there's a lot of opportunity out there, would you say?
Dwight Thomas (10:56):
Oh, yeah, definitely. I, and I could say this too, Sean, is that when I started this about 25 years ago, I've been in the business of pretty good wild back then. I mean, what really got me fired up was the, the old telephone guys. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, with the orange butt said, hanging off the side of his belt, <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative> that got into this, you know, I mean, and that, and I remember back then, you know, wanting to visit my local office, my local co in my city, which I, I did. Okay. And I, you know, I, I had great pride in that. Cause that's where I started. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, so, but at that time, you know, that was not a real focus on connecting. Right? It was, that came over time. But when that bug bit me, I mean that, you know, and I knew that's what my purpose, you know, there are some things that I'm a Bible guy, right? Mm-hmm. So I gotta, I gotta mention this mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But when you hear certain things, you have to, you have to bend your ear to them mm-hmm. <affirmative> when that call happens. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and this, that's what this was, this is a calling. So that's why I'm so passionate about it. I spent lot of time thinking about it, doing it, networking, doing everything I can to serve others, because at the end of the day, I wanna build networks that serve people.
Sean Gonsalves (12:02):
That's terrific. Now, I, you know, I'm not, you know, even though I write considerably about network builds all across the country and with different communities up to when it comes to like the actual technical stuff, I'm about a mile wide and an inch deep. But I do know enough to be dangerous, I guess. But meaning, well, I, this is what I have come to see is that, especially around the technologies that we're talking about, and this whole space in particular, there is, I think, a great deal of fear that some people have that don't come from this background. Sure. And feel like, well, it's, it, it, it's, it's, it's, it's too esoteric, it's too scary. How do you, how do you, how do you meet people where they are as, as, as it relates to that, how do you, how do you bring people into the fold, as it were, and, and also dealing with that, that, that, that a lot of people have that sense of like, this is too complicated for me to even get involved in.
Dwight Thomas (12:59):
Well, I will say this, I, I think it does take a, a special person in a sense to, to want to do this kind of work. Because a lot of stuff that you work with, it's not all, it's not just physical things that you can see. Some of the stuff is abstract. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? So it's concepts and it's, it's, it's systems. And you gotta kind of be able to think in think in terms of systems mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that's a part of it. But then again, if you are a peculiar person who, who, who kind of, who wants to understand how things connect mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I think that's where it starts. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and then solving that problem for me, it just, it just happens to be that I love connecting people, places and things. So just as much as I develop my relationship with people, I, I love to connect things too. So it just, for me, it kind of works all together. And I think, I like to think I'm purpose-built for this at the same time for this and for the work that I do.
Sean Gonsalves (13:49):
Last question, and I really appreciate your time. You're looking forward. We're, we're, we're in the beginning of, of 2023. You know, we kind of talked about, you know, the excitement and all the, all the, the things that are happening in this space. As you look down the road here, the next few months, the next out, out into the next year, what are some of the things that have you excited or that you're most looking forward to?
Dwight Thomas (14:09):
Well, I think one of the things I, I see nowadays is like some of the work that Education Superhighway is doing, how they've, they've retooled and now they're looking at apartments and how to connect those because they, they realized that, you know, we've made some progress in building fiber home networks, but what about the folks who live in these, in these, it's apartment complex, right? And some of'em densely populated. And so I think that's a, that's something that intrigues me now, getting into that, getting to that space. I mean, I live in Houston, you know, we see a lot of that in the Houston area and surrounding areas. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I've been out to, to new Orleans, you see the same thing there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>. and so I think that's the next wave I'm looking, I'm excited about is, is getting services to apartments and, and mdu mdu style places, but at the same time, retooling a workforce that can support that.
Sean Gonsalves (14:56):
Interesting. Interesting. Yeah, I, I we're starting to see that as well. We were just recently in Baltimore and saw some interesting things that Project Waves is doing. and and so it, it seems to me that there's a lot of headway that could be made in, with multi developing rooms, especially, it seems that there's so a, a lot of folks who are underserved or, or, or digitally disconnected live in apartment buildings.
Dwight Thomas (15:17):
Yes. Yes. And, and I can tell you that there's a, a story, and I didn't witness this myself, but someone very close to me told me about the time that they went over to new Orleans, and this is right around when Covid happened. And, and it was just a sad thing because the kids there could not attend schools. School was closed, right. And so at home, they had no internet. But even in the places, even in the apartments that had internet services, the grandparents who were raising them didn't understand the literacy of those things. So that, so that's just a, that's a, it's a, something that's near and dear to me. So when I see things like that, it just kind of, you know, it, it, it does something to me because it's one thing to build it, right? It's, and it's another thing to teach people how to use it. Right? So, and so that's, that's a, it's a, it's a double-ended sword there, I guess you can kind of call it mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but that, those, that, that little story that I was told mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that's what keeps me going. That's why I continue to want to build these and then seek out those who need my assistance, or just, sometimes I'll just offer it. Right. I'm there. If I got, if I got a free weekend, I'll come down, you know, may cost you a hamburger.
Sean Gonsalves (16:23):
So, so, so on that note, I'll come down and do it. Okay. <laugh>. Now. So on that note, if somebody's listening to this and they heard the calling Sure. How do they find you?
Dwight Thomas (16:31):
Well, LinkedIn, of course, I'm there. but other than that, I mean, I can give them, I mean, I'll give 'em information out, but LinkedIn's probably the best place to find me. I check it regularly. And you can reach me out. You, you can reach me there, I'll reply back to you and then we'll kind of build a connection that way.
Sean Gonsalves (16:47):
Excellent. Okay. Listen, the, the, the podcast is being crashed real quick by Christopher Mitchell who happens to be here, and I'm gonna turn the, the mic over to him.
Dwight Thomas (16:56):
Christopher Mitchell (16:58):
This is a podcast bomb, <laugh>. I wanted to ask you a question. And first of all, I wanna say I will work for burritos and barbecue also as well as
Dwight Thomas (17:05):
There you go.
Christopher Mitchell (17:07):
I wanted to ask you something, and, and the things that you've seen has, and you don't have to tell, is details. Cuz when the question I'm asking you is sometimes people don't wanna, don't want to share who it is or what city. Sure. Have you seen something that didn't happen and you were like, man, I really wish that that had happened?
Dwight Thomas (17:22):
Yes, <laugh>, there's one project in particular that I really I happened to be a part of it not completely, but, but as an as needed consultant and as a place where a city built the network to serve it community and it did my, did not materialized. like I would've liked it to. And so I think that's, and I think it's a good example of saying that the, the, the build it owned model is not always the best model for each city. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> it sometime it is partnerships, right? and so I, I just think that I'm trying to, I'm choosing my words here, <laugh> the best way. But, but I, and I know that they're more like that out there, but that's, I think that's the biggest thing, is that you want to, you definitely want to do something that's serving the community. And sometimes when that does not quite happen, like you want, it's a little bit disheartened. Hold and answer your, your question, Chris.
Sean Gonsalves (18:20):
Well, Dwight, you've given us a word, folks. That was Christopher Mitchell, the director of our program, a special surprise guest. And, and, and this has been great. I appreciate your time.
Dwight Thomas (18:30):
Awesome. Thank you, Sean. Thank you for having me.
Sean Gonsalves (18:34):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at ilsr.org/podcast. Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor. Please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing email@example.com. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mcca.com for the song on the Verge.